Preserving and celebrating our culture is a wonderful gift. Culture gives an individual a unique identity and character. It enables us to find value in our lives and gives us a foundation on how to live. Traditions that are passed to each new generation connect older and younger members of family and community by creating common ground. Celebrating our own and other cultures allow us to accept and respect the differences of our world. Kirin Macapugay is preserving her Igorot culture by helping to teach the next generation about their traditions and beliefs through BIBAK Youth San Diego. Aside from passing on traditions they perform and educate other Filipinos and non-Filipino people creating a more accepting and friendly community.
What was your inspiration or what necessitated you to begin this adventure? I am a full blooded Igorota, a term meaning “people of the mountain,” describing the indigenous “tribes” of people from the Philippine Cordilleras. We constitute three percent of the total population. Igorots are historically known for resisting Spanish rule during Spain’s 400 year reign of the Philippines. This was due in large part to the warrior head hunting culture, the mountainous terrain that was difficult to navigate, and the fierce protection of ancestral lands. Unfortunately, this also caused rifts between Igorots and other Filipinos. With little external influence however, we have been able to maintain the same rituals and traditions handed down for thousands of years. To this day, there are challenges for Igorots who still live in the cordilleras. These include a constant struggle to hold political office as well as secure quality education, healthcare, and resources.
The Banaue rice terraces, considered the eighth wonder of the world, were carved into the mountains thousands of years ago by Igorots. We are also known for cloth weaving, basket weaving, metal works, and adornments. Music and dance accompany significant life rituals, and different tribes teach their youth particular instrumentation and dance during various life stages. Although my parents emigrated to the United States (via the US Navy) when I was two years old, they continued to practice our traditional rites. My parents taught me about my culture as early as third grade, when my mom dressed me up in a traditional Kalinga tapis (skirt), blouse, and beads for the annual school costume party. She said “no one else will have this, this is unique.” And it was. I was too young to vocalize it at the time, and people just thought I was dressing up as a native American.
I have family pictures of me wearing my traditional tapis (skirt) when I was eight years old. There’s an even earlier photo of me at less than a year old, wearing bongor (beaded necklace) playing in my family clan’s yard in Kalinga, Philippines, where I was born. I was blessed to grow up with unique traditions and cultures, though many times it was not easy explaining these traditions to my other Filipino friends, much less friends of other ethnicities.
BIBAK, which stands for the five tribes of the Cordilleras—Benguet, Ifugao, Bontoc, Apayao, Kalinga–is an organization I consider my extended family. I am both Kalinga (on my mother’s side) and Bontoc (on my father’s). When I became a young adult, I would assist the younger girls in dressing up in our traditional clothing, coaching them as they danced. It was a natural transition, teaching the younger ones the way my mom and aunts taught me.
When I became a mother in 2008, I realized I needed to be able to answer the questions my son would have about his heritage. My younger cousins were already asking questions I realized I didn’t have sufficient answers for, like what did the tattoos on my grandmother’s arms, chest, and back mean? What did the music, rituals, customs signify? Why do we spread our arms like wings of birds when we dance? Why do we consider birds a good omen? Why do we believe our ancestors spirits are constantly present, that they have an active role in our everyday lives? And why didn’t other Filipinos and Filipino-Americans do/believe the same things? I began delving into the meanings and underlyings of the rituals I knew, which lead me to mapping out my family’s history. I can trace my ancestors back nearly nine generations. I know that my great great grandfathers down to my father are/were “mingor,” the Kalinga term for exalted warrior. I witnessed my own father’s datum (warrior ritual) when he returned from the Persian Gulf War, carried out by my grand uncle, a respected elder and scholar. I know that my Bontoc grandmother was a master weaver, that my Bontoc grandfather was a respected sergeant for the Philippine Constabulary during World War II. I know the great great grandfather for whom my son is named after (we give our children the nick-name of an ancestor, with the belief that ancestor will guard them throughout life) was a warrior, and that my great grandfather was a renowned hunter whom people called “the King of Wild Boars.” Learning more about my bloodline has been an inspiring reminder of all the history that has occurred to bring me to where I am now, in this point of my life in this corner of the world.
What steps did you take to create your program? I was part of the first round of BIBAK San Diego Youth, in the late 80s when the chapter was formed. We were a small handful, and have various levels of exposure to our respective tribal cultures. Willingness to be engaged and learn the appropriate dances and music differed as well, with the girls being more willing than the boys. Understandably, the traditional wear for boys is much more scant than girls, and the young males at the time were simply not willing to put themselves in traditional loincloths for the public.
Now however, BIBAK San Diego has a large number of youth ages 5-24, the children and grandchildren of the founding members. One of the elders is a lead instructor, and these youth have learned to play a few songs and dances as early as six years old. In the mid-90s, knowledgeable elders were more visible, displaying ritualistic dances at Filipino-American festivals. These public appearances tapered however, for several reasons, yet we continued to carry on our traditions and performances for our own internal (Igorot related) audiences. In 2008, the same year I became a mom, BIBAK San Diego held a grand “canao (celebration).” It was attended by more than 800 igorot, Filipino and non-Filipino people, with our youth being a highlight of the program, in homage to the theme, “The Beat Goes On.” Public requests for performances for other audiences, particularly our youth, began to grow.
With more performance requests for non-Igorot, non-Filipino audiences came an interest from our youth to learn more about the rituals tied into our dances. During this same time, one our members, Mark Leo, who is Benguet, began presenting his Master’s thesis on Igorot identity (San FranciscoStateUniversity) within the larger Filipino and Filipino-American community. His work shed insight on the sociopolitical history of Igorots, as one of the Philippines indigenous people, as well as critiqued nation state politics. Culture and the preservation of culture should be viewed from a holistic lens of its people. Therefore, we began to teach our youth more about our own unique history as a people. As for folk art, I made it a point to introduce other traditions including backstrap weaving (a once practical art form dying with the older generations who still remember how to weave), beading, and broadening their repertoire of musical instrumentation and dance from the various tribes. What is unique for us Igorots living in America, is the ability to learn cross-culturally from other Igorot tribes, which is not common practice in the Philippines. I consult with my parents and relatives to help educate our youth, taking advantage of our family gatherings and key life events, e.g. weddings, birth of a new child.
What obstacles were you forced to overcome? I grew up in Paradise Hills, one of the largest Filipino-American communities in Southern California. I heard all kinds of disparaging remarks about Igorots growing up. Sometimes I didn’t have the energy to dispel myths, and even when I did, people would look at me quizzically as if they couldn’t believe I was Igorot. I think in their minds my people really are savage beasts in some remote jungle somewhere. I figure they’ll come to their own enlightenment on their own terms. I am very comfortable in my skin now, and quite proud of my heritage. Instead of being resentful, I see it as my duty to educate others about my culture while I navigate being an immigrant American living in the greater United States society.
Being entrenched in the greater Filipino American civic scene of San Diego, I feel my cultural knowledge has served as an asset. I can trace my lineage back hundreds of years. I indeed descended from warriors, and I do my best to carry that spirit with me whether I’m battling it out at a city hearing or a advocating for a program I know will improve the health and wellness of my fellow Filipinos and non-Filipino neighbors.
Honestly, the only obstacle I have right now is simply not having enough time. J
What were the hardest problems to solve or actions to take? There are certain members of each tribe who are knowledgeable about particular rituals, dance, and music. Staying true to our traditions, we don’t use instruction via things like Youtube videos. These are rituals that must be handed down, taught live, to reinforce the importance of the interactions between generations. The very interaction of learning how to play certain songs, in the correct “order” and cadence is a learning experience in and of itself. The student, usually a younger family member, must be attentive, listen carefully, and accept his/her order in the family clan’s hierarchy. As s/he gets older, they will then be responsible for teaching younger generations as well.
What must you do to stay operational? n/a. There’s no need to be paid to learn and protect one’s culture. When we perform for outside audiences, we do ask for a small honorarium (usually $150-300 for at least 12 dancers and a 20 minute performance). This usually pays for a communal meal after the performance or for traditional clothing that one youth’s family may not have on hand. For public lectures and discussions, we find venues that are provided to the community at no cost, like the public libraries. Our time conducting these educational lectures is voluntary.
Who, if anyone, helped you succeed? All our family, all the ancestors before us, all those who fought off colonization to protect our traditions. More importantly, I am blessed to have my parents, who are very knowledgeable and proud of our culture, drilled it into me from day one. I know many igorot youth whose parents prefer not to be known as Igorot, who can’t shake the shame and ridicule they faced growing up. My parents chose to hold their heads up higher, and passed that pride on to me.
Do you have any advice for readers who want to get involved or start a similar program?Regardless of who you are, where your family is from, or even if you don’t have much family you care to speak to, it’s important to be comfortable in your own skin, and all the things that go with being who you are. If you feel you would like to learn more about your culture of origin or even if you just want to learn more about your family history, do your due diligence. Speak to your parents, your grandparents, your relatives. Be the historian for your family, for your people. More importantly, document these things so you can pass the information on.
Learn more at www.BibakSanDiego.net
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Kirin Amiling Macapugay was born in Kalinga, Philippines, and immigrated with her U.S Navy father and mother to San Diego in the late 70’s. She grew up in Barrio Logan, National City, and Paradise Hills. Experiencing the effects of rampant gang activities prevalent in Filipino American communities during the 90’s, Kirin was drawn to community work early on, and finished a Master’s in Social Work with the intent of strengthening underserved communities.
Igorots, meaning “people of the mountain,” are one of the recognized indigenous peoples of the Philippines’ northern Luzon island, from the area known as the Cordilleras. The five major tribes of the Igorot people are the Benguet, Ifugao, Bontoc, Apayao, and Kalinga, with various sub-tribes. BIBAK San Diego is an organization dedicated to teaching the history and culture of igorot people, as well as preserving and teaching traditions to future generations.